To understand why last week's meeting of the Culpeper Town Council started with a moment of silence instead of a prayer, you have to know that in today's America, fear of being sued trumps just about everything, including God.

To understand why prayer before council meetings has come to dominate talk in this town 70 miles southwest of Washington, even with a presidential election just days away, it helps to know that in 1768, Patrick Henry defended three Anabaptists charged with preaching without a license on the road from Culpeper to Fredericksburg.

Henry is a heroic figure in rural Virginia, not merely because he's the patriot who said, "Give me liberty or give me death," but because he stood up against England's official Anglican Church, fought for the rights of early Baptists and defined the United States as a country "founded not by religionists, but by Christians."

Going back to Colonial times, Culpeper's council meetings have begun with an invocation by a local minister. Until now, that minister was chosen by the town's Ministerial Association, whose members are Christian pastors. Prayers, therefore, were addressed specifically to Jesus.

In August, Town Attorney Robert Bendall issued a memo suggesting that from now on, invocations should "avoid reference to 'Jesus,' 'Christ' or any other variation on those names" and should instead use "neutral" terms such as God, Creator and Providence. Bendall said the town had to change because a federal appeals court in July declared unconstitutional a South Carolina town's practice of invoking Jesus's name in prayers at council meetings. A local Wiccan called the practice an establishment of religion by a state authority, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed.

Now, Bendall said, Culpeper must change or face "lost time, distraction from town business and payment of damages and attorney fees."

This has not gone over well in a town of 10,000 people and 34 churches. The Star Exponent newspaper has been filled with letters from residents appalled that their town would dare tell anyone not to pray to a particular deity.

"When we moved to Culpeper from Fairfax two years ago, I told my wife how good it was to be in a place where residents and officials felt free to express their faith," Paul Reeves wrote. Now, ministers must either "maintain their values, or accept the rule of an attorney who has already said litigation avoidance tops freedom to express values."

"If we can't call on Him by name, then it's not worth a prayer," wrote Culpeper resident Susanne Reisch.

At a summit of local ministers, many said their faith would not permit them a generic prayer, though a few saw no harm in a bit of nonsectarian worship.

Michael Sharman, a Culpeper lawyer who publishes a journal advocating "the restoration of traditional American life," offers a compromise. The town attorney -- like his counterparts in several other Virginia towns -- says the court meant that no prayer at a government meeting may be directed to Jesus. Sharman says the court was addressing prayers delivered by elected officials, not ministers. All Culpeper has to do, Sharman says, is open up its invocations to other faiths.

How does a secular state decide who speaks for other faiths? Sharman suggests using Virginia's marriage law. Anyone ordained by a religious group may officiate; faiths that don't ordain leaders submit lists of people who may preside over marriages.

"Would that permit a Wiccan to come in? Yes, but God can handle that," Sharman says. "Jesus deserves to be named when we pray. But he's never asked for exclusivity in the halls of government."

Thanks, but Culpeper's mayor, Pranas Rimeikis, would just as soon stick with a moment of silence. "It's not a pulpit, it's a government business meeting," he said at the last session.

The mayor is right, of course, but this is not only a battle over religion's place in a secular state. It is about Culpeper, Patrick Henry and three centuries of tradition. The news in Culpeper is about development, congestion and Washington's inexorable spread into once-rural terrain. You hear a lot about "all those people from Fairfax."

Prayer at public meetings is part of what Culpeper has always been. Giving up that tradition means embracing a metropolitan mix -- a hard step in a place where Patrick Henry lives on.